It's become a popular topic over the last few seasons: Gus Malzahn can't win without a mobile QB. I discussed last summer how that's most definitely not true over the course of his history in college football. There's an argument to be made that he's at his best in the SEC with a mobile QB, but his first season at Arkansas says differently. As we approach Fall Camp and there might once again be an Auburn QB starting who isn't a "dual-threat," we have to discuss the issue again. So, is there perhaps another key cog that we're overlooking in what truly makes Gus' offense work?
Misdirection. That's part of the heart of what Gus Malzahn does. Fooling the defense into biting on something and then doing something else. What is the zone read if not a form of misdirection? That's where Auburn's success under Gus Malzahn came from with Nick Marshall as the quarterback. It wasn't so much the zone read, though, with Cam Newton, because he wasn't an outside runner. He was more of an up-the-middle power runner when he kept the ball on the inverted veer.
That's two different styles of running quarterback. Marshall was the elusive outside guy. Cam was the bruiser. Both were very effective at what they did and led Auburn to great things.
One thing that helped them do what they did, though, was the effectiveness of the rest of the ground game. Be it power, speed sweep or buck sweep, the running game by the running backs was the key cog in opening up the rest of the offense.
Cam Newton had Michael Dyer for power and Onterio McCalebb for the jet sweep. Nick Marshall had both Corey Grant and Ricardo Louis for the jet and Tre Mason for the buck sweep. Tre and Cameron Artis-Payne also ran power. Want to throw the defense off? Scare them with someone who can hit the edge or bust up the middle and take it to the house.
Marshall and Cam were always a threat to do that, too, which added another dimension to the offense. I'm not arguing that Gus' offense may not be most effective with a dual-threat QB (because I think a dual-threat takes his play-calling to another level of options), just that it isn't a requirement to be able to win.
For all the Tigers' struggles in the last part of 2014, the offense wasn't really the problem, as we've discussed ad nauseam. The offense was still mostly effective, scoring over 30 points in all but 2 games; a recipe for certain victory every other season.
The offense did struggle in 2015. Sure, we know the QB struggles. But how often did you see the Tigers run the speed sweep? Who really took on that role? Once it was clear Ricardo Louis was the only real deep option early on, he was wasn't used as much close to the line. The buck sweep was run a good bit in the LSU game, but other issues killed the efforts in that one. The jet was used most effectively, probably, in the Arkansas game, as this post shows. That game, incidentally, is one I point to as how Auburn's offense can definitely be successful with Sean White at QB (if WRs catch the ball).
When Kerryon Johnson lined up in the Wildcat formation, Jason Smith had a few touchdowns off the sweep. It was an effective play with him and Kerryon in the backfield together. There are other options in play this season. Stanton Truitt is a speedster if he can stay healthy. Darius Slayton redshirted in 2015. Ryan Davis saw limited action, but he's got the speed to run the play. Then there's incoming freshman Kam Martin.
Power? It was there with Peyton Barber, but Barber was never a true threat to take it to the house. I'm not knocking Barber. I've repeatedly said that he's the reason the 2015 season was just mediocre and not an absolute disaster. He was the engine that drove the Tigers to any sort of success until Jovon Robinson started playing. Robinson, though, took the Tigers to another level. The offense, even without great QB play, actually ran pretty smoothly when Robinson was in the game.
When the running game is working, then play-action comes into play. That's when Gus & Rhett want to kill you with the deep ball. It's play-action and the misdirection therein that can really drive success in Gus Malzahn's offensive system if you don't have a mobile QB.
Sure, it helps if the QB is also a running threat. It helps a lot. But it's not absolutely essential.
Go back to the article linked above. For all the talk that Gus is a zone-read coach, he really hasn't had a lot of zone-read heavy offenses. He can be successful with a passing QB, as he was at Tulsa. Any type of ground game that is capable of getting the big plays, keeping the defense on its toes, and allowing the team to gain chunks of yardage while pushing the hurry-up/no-huddle pace is the true key to Gus Malzahn's offense.
Want to see what I'm talking about? Watch the 2011 Chick-Fil-A Bowl again. After having been slowed down all season long, Gus was allowed to call his offense in the bowl game, and the result was a fantastic offensive performance.
The options will be there. Any effective running game is the key to Auburn's success. Wearing down the defense and coming at them hard and fast will be what determines Auburn's season. If the Tigers can confuse the defense with a power running game and the quarterback zone read, then that will be great. They can do much the same thing with the power running game complemented by the sweeps and play-action passes, though.
No, a mobile quarterback isn't the absolute requirement for Gus Malzahn's to be successful. So if the starting QB against Clemson is announced as Sean White or even Jeremy Johnson, then know that the Tigers can still win.